I feel like traditional schooling focuses too much on theory and not enough on application. What do I mean by that? Take a look at core curriculum: Math – what is math? In many ways, it’s the underlying theory behind how things work. I think it’s great to teach this stuff. But We’re missing the application – how does this topic relate to your day to day life? For example, simple arithmetic is reality easy to explain in concrete terms – you can explain property rights using arithmetic. Who owns what, and how much of something do they own? If you learn arithmetic, you can better figure out how to track ownership. Exchanging money provides an instant application for arithmetic options. But when you’re using Calculus to calculate the surface area of a given volume, well, it gets a little harder to explain how this knowledge is applicable to things you do in your everyday life.
Likewise with History – what is the purpose of history? I’m not going to give a definitive answer, but my own reason for learning history – it serves as the underlying context with which to understand modern society. The purpose of history isn’t to learn random trivia about things that happened in the past – it’s to understand current events by infusing them with the appropriate context – that is, cultural background, possibly long standing conflicts between existing nations, and so forth. But I feel like history classes rarely move into the realm of application – it remains in the space of explaining the theory – that is, the facts about events in the past.
English class was another one – what did we do in our English classes? Mostly write a fuck ton of essays. But what was the purpose in doing so? Well, to each their own, really- you need to find your own purpose in improving your English – what does improved English facilitate? Possibly writing better grant proposals if you need to petition the government for money. Or sending out better communicated messages to your team, if you work at a company. If your message is hard to understand or open to misinterpretation, you can lead people astray. I dunno. Maybe help you write articles? I think English classes should devote some time to helping students figure out the purpose of spending time on English. What kind of outcomes does better English facilitate in their own lives? Let’s find out, instead of spending all this bullshit time on fucking gerunds.
Back to language learning – I also feel like traditional language classes are geared too much towards theory instead of application. What does that mean? Traditional language classes devote a lot of time to learning about a language instead of how to use it. What do I mean? Think about learning grammar – Here’s a concrete example – conjugations of verbs in Spanish.
For Spanish verbs, the infinitive form, or the base form of the verb is the verb, ending in three forms: -ar, -er, or -ir. Here’s an example: trabajar, which means, to work. When you see a verb in spanish that ends in -ar, -er, or -ir, it generally means “To do x”, where x is the verb. Now for this verb trabajar, You change the ending of the verb depending on who is doing the action – this is otherwise known as conjugation. What does that mean? It means you can understand who is doing the action based on how the verb is conjugated. So what does this mean? To make it more concrete, think of verbs in english: eat, dance, smell, shot, etc. Looking at those verbs, you can’t tell who is doing the action. If I added the pronoun before the verb, you would know who did the action: I eat, he dances, she smells, you shot, etc. Now, in Spanish, instead of adding a pronoun before the verb to figure out who’s doing the action, you change the end of the verb itself to indicate who’s done the action. So for the word trabajar, it gets conjugated in the following way:
- If I’m doing the action: trabajo – this is the Spanish equivalent “I work”
- You’re doing the action: trabajas – Spanish equivalent “You work”
- He/She is doing the action: trabaja – Spanish equivalent “She/He works”
- We’re doing the action: trabajamos – Spanish equivalent of “We work”
- They’re doing the action: trabajan – Spanish equivalent of “They work”
Now you possibly understand the general concept of conjugation based on the speaker, if you were unfamiliar with Spanish previously. Having said that, learning the grammar, AKA the theory, has given you no insight into application – that is, real world usage of the language. It hasn’t helped you figure out how to ask for the bathroom in Spanish, or ask for the bill, or order food at a restaurant. For most language learners, I posit the priority is reversed – we should be learning application – that is, how to say/write/speak/understand phrases(depending on what you plan on doing with the language) and once we have a decent understanding of how to say things, we can then spend time reverse engineering the underlying grammatical concepts.
What is application in the context of language learning – it’s learner specific, but there remains the four aspects of language we can learn: listening, speaking, reading and writing. Generally, language classes incorporate all four aspects, but is this really necessary for all students? I say not at all – it really depends on the priority of the student. For example, If you were learning Japanese so you could watch and understand Japanese anime, would you really need to spend much time on speaking, reading, and writing? I’d say, not really – unless you want to read subtitles – then you could also focus on reading. What is the purpose of devoting hundreds of hours to learning how to use Japanese in conversation if you never intend to speak it? Likewise, if your objective was to learn Japanese solely to read manga, why bother spending time practicing your speaking and listening? Ultimately it doesn’t advance your interests. These seem like somewhat edge cases, but I bring them up to highlight my main example: What if you just want to learn a language so you can carry out conversations in your target language? This is how I do feel about my target language. Do I ever plan on reading or writing in Cantonese? Hell no. So I devote all my learning time to listening and speaking. Why waste time learning thousands of characters if I don’t plan to translate them to Cantonese usage? In this context, traditional language classes contain a lot of excess – they try to balance learning all four aspects of the language, when it might be the case that some of these aspects are not a priority for you individually. Ultimately, I think the more you move away from large group classes and go to 1:1 tutoring or mentoring, the more you can facilitate this kind of theory:application learning model – instead of learning all theory, you can focus on learning applications then filling in the background with theory as necessary.